The Cassini Spacecraft Has Taken New Photos Of The Rings Of Saturn

The Cassini Spacecraft Has Taken New Photos Of The Rings Of Saturn

The images, the closest view yet of the icy discs around the planet, came from the Cassini spacecraft which is in a "ring grazing phase". Then, in late April, the spacecraft is set to begin its final series of orbits, bringing it closer and closer to the planet's surface before plunging right into the planet, sending back as much information as possible before losing contact.

Cassini is now about halfway through its penultimate mission phase - 20 orbits that dive past the outer edge of the main ring system.

Closeups show ring particles and moonlets not seen since Cassini's 2004 arrival at Saturn. From this view, it is clear that there are still finer details to uncover, NASA said.

Cassini's most recent images feature the highest level of detail achieved yet, resolving structures that are just 0.3 miles (1,584 feet or 550 meters) across - that's roughly the size of some of Earth's tallest buildings.

Circles added to this image of Saturn's A ring indicate the locations of many of small propellers, or disturbances created by the gravity from tiny moonlets.

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Saturn's A ring, with blemishes due to cosmic rays and charged particle radiation near the planet.

"As the person who planned those initial orbit-insertion ring images, which remained our most detailed view of the rings for the past 13 years, I am taken aback by how vastly improved are the details in this new collection", Carolyn Porco, Cassini's imaging lead at the Space Science Institute based in Colorado, said.

While the rings, as a whole, look like perfectly smooth disks from a distance, when viewed from close range, the smaller-scale bits of ice, dust and rock that form the rings can be spotted.

The probe has previously been closer than this to the rings, but at the time it was moving too quickly to take good-quality images, as it had to use a quick exposure.

NASA's Cassini beamed these spectacular photos of saturn's rings back from space. It has made a number of dramatic discoveries there, including indications of hydrothermal activity on the moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on the moon Titan.